Campaign to blame China escalates
White House wants spies to find virus origin, officials say
Some analysts are worried that pressure from senior officials could distort assessments about the virus, weaponized in escalating battle with China.
WASHINGTON — Senior Trump administration officials have pushed U.S. spy agencies to hunt for evidence to support an unsubstantiated theory that a government laboratory in Wuhan, China, was the origin of the coronavirus outbreak, according to current and former U.S. officials. The effort comes as President Donald Trump escalates a public campaign to blame China for the pandemic.
Most intelligence agencies remain skeptical that conclusive evidence of a link to a lab can be found, and scientists who have studied the genetics of the coronavirus say that the overwhelming probability is that it leapt from animal to human in a non-laboratory setting, as was the case with HIV, Ebola and SARS.
Trump’s aides and Republicans in Congress have sought to blame China in part to deflect criticism of the administration’s mismanagement of the crisis in the United States, which now has more coronavirus cases than any country. More than 1 million Americans have been infected, and more than 62,000 have died.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former CIA director and one of the administration’s most vocal hard-liners on China, has taken the lead in pushing U.S. intelligence agencies for more information, according to current and former officials.
Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser who reported on SARS outbreaks as a journalist in China, has pressed intelligence agencies off and on since January to gather information that might support any origin theory linked to a lab.
And Anthony Ruggiero, the head of the National Security Council’s bureau tracking weapons of mass destruction, expressed frustration during one videoconference in January that the CIA was unable to get behind any theory of the outbreak’s origin. CIA analysts responded they simply did not have the evidence to support any one theory with high confidence at the time, according to people familiar with the conversation.
The CIA’s judgment was based in part on the fact that no signs had emerged that the Chinese government believed the outbreak came from a lab. The Chinese government has vigorously denied that the virus leaked from a lab while pushing disinformation on its origins, including suggesting the U.S. military created it.
The State Department declined to answer questions about Pompeo’s role. Spokesmen for the White House and the National Security Council declined to comment.
In a statement released Thursday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said the intelligence community “will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”
Intelligence agencies, the statement said, concur “with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified.”
For months, scientists, spies and government officials have wrestled with varying theories about how the outbreak began, and many agree on the importance of determining the genesis of the pandemic.
A few veteran national security experts have pointed to a history of lab accidents infecting researchers to suggest it might have happened in this case, but many scientists have dismissed such theories.
“We do not believe any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible,” five scientists wrote in a paper published in March in Nature Medicine.
Trump has spoken publicly about the administration’s “very serious investigations” of the virus’s origin and China’s culpability. Those inquiries took on new urgency in late March, when intelligence officials presented information to the White House that prompted some career officials to reconsider the lab theory. The precise nature of the information, based in part on intercepted communications among Chinese officials, is unclear.
The current and former officials did not say whether Trump himself, who has shown little regard for the independent judgments of intelligence and law enforcement officials, has pressured the intelligence agencies. But he does want any information supporting the lab theory to set the stage for holding China responsible, according to two people familiar with his thinking.
He has expressed interest in an idea pushed by Michael Pillsbury, an informal China adviser to the White House, that Beijing could be sued for damages, with the United States seeking $10 million for every death.
At a news conference this week, Trump said the administration was discussing a “very substantial” reparations claim against China — an idea that Beijing has already denounced.
A former U.S. intelligence official described senior aides’ repeated emphasis of the lab theory as “conclusion shopping,” a disparaging term among analysts.
A worker gestures Thursday in Wuhan, China. Scientists say the coronavirus probably did not begin in a lab in that city.